Making connections

Directory assistance company dials in to lucrative niche

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Consumers rarely give it a thought, but telephone directory assistance is a $5 billion industry. Tom Miller-Freutel would love to grab even 1 percent of that action.

Miller-Freutel is the executive vice president of Dial411, a company with offices in Southern California, Arizona, New Jersey, Great Britain and Steamboat Springs. He works from a home office equipped with five phone and data lines.

Miller-Freutel is aggressively pursuing corporate and institutional accounts by promising them better directory assistance at reduced cost. For big companies, that can add up to savings of many thousands of dollars annually. As a bonus, Dial411 customers always talk to a live operator and never have to wade through automated phone systems spiked with commercial messages.

"We discovered we could offer a superior directory assistance product for far less money," Miller-Freutel said. "Essentially, we found a way to take a phone system and tell it, when you dial 411, dial a toll-free number and route it over a new pathway."

Accessing Dial411's service is transparent to the users -- they don't have to enter any codes and are not aware their phone is placing a toll-free call to access Dial411's service. What they should notice, Miller-Freutel said, is that it never takes them more than six seconds to obtain the number they seek.

Yet, the company has just 20 employees, Miller-Freutel said. Running lean helps the company charge less for each directory assistance call. Some telephone providers charge as little as $1.25 a call, and others charge as much as $2.99, Miller-Freutel said. Dial411 charges 47 cents a call.

Daryl Lev, president and CEO of Dial411, said the savings go beyond the rate charged for each directory assistance call.

"We provide an absolutely superior service at substantial savings, while increasing overall employee productivity," Lev said.

Plenty of takers

So far, the organizations that have been convinced of Diall411's desirability include Colorado State University, the Denver Newspaper Agency, Banner Healthcare and the state of Oklahoma. Most recently, the U.S. Coast Guard came on board. Negotiations are under way with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Marine Corps.

Most of Dial411's accounts are interested in national directory assistance. However, the Marine Corps is seeking a highly secure internal directory assistance service. Miller-Freutel said it's easy to imagine the Marine Corps' motivation to modernize its directory assistance capability to match its command and control system. With servicemen and servicewomen stationed around the globe, friends and families constantly are trying to keep track of their whereabouts.

In addition to six offices in the U.S.

and a seventh in Manchester, England, Dial411 has call centers in Penticton, British Columbia; Phoenix; and Rockledge, Fla. There also are Web data centers in Wallington, N.J., and Orange, Calif. The 1,500 call center workers are employed by a subcontractor. However, the call centers are dedicated to Dial411, and the training of the employees is closely supervised.

Keeping it fresh

One of the keys to Dial411's service is the daily updating of the company's phone listing database, Miller-Freutel said. An automated computer system searches 2,600 databases and makes between 2 million and 2.5 million changes every day. The result is that Miller-Freutel's customers are far less likely to hear the directory assistance operator say they don't have a listing for that name in that location.

Dial411's ability to track down phone listings is further enhanced by a proprietary "halo search technique," Miller-Freutel said. If a client calls and asks for a phone number in Frisco, for example, the system knows to search in neighboring Breckenridge, Keystone and Silverthorne.

A business proposal

Miller-Freutel didn't relocate to Steamboat in the midst of his career with Dial411. Instead, after a career as a chemist working on the development of polymer adhesives, he came to Steamboat with his family to operate The Inn at Steamboat. After 12 years, he sold the lodging property, but his new career path was provided by the business relationship he enjoyed with Lev at the inn.

Lev's original company, Com----munication Brokers & Con--sultants, provided long-distance phone service to guests of hotels and resort properties. The Inn at Steamboat was among its clients. Feeling the downward pressure on long-distance rates in the late 1990s, Lev began looking for a new direction for his business. He came to Miller-Freutel asking whether he could test his new directory information concept on a small phone system. Miller-Freutel proposed a more permanent arrangement.

Lev is based in Calabasas, Calif. Miller-Freutel said that because of the availability of fiber-optic data lines and improved air service, he can look forward to remaining in Steamboat. Within 12 months, he anticipates opening a more formal office in Steamboat with as many as four employees.

New opportunities

Miller-Freutel contemplates the changing world of telecommunications and sees unlimited opportunities for new accounts. To pitch its services to federal agencies such as the Coast Guard, Dial411 had to be certified by the General Services Administration. But the GSA manages federal buildings across the country, and Dial411 is going after its business, too.

The next challenge is to work with large companies that provide hundreds and thousands of cell phones to their employees. Before long, those companies will be able to provide in-house directory assistance for company cell phones.

"Directory assistance isn't a romantic business, but it gets me in front of governors, CEOs and generals-- -- people I never would have been in front of," Miller-Freutel said. "There's a lot of excitement to that opportunity. The key for us is being the best in the business. And without high-speed data access, I wouldn't be here."

-- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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